Teaching Hume and His Racism
“Whenever someone claims that we should not mention Hume’s racism because he was a product of his time we should commit that argument ‘to the flames: for it contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.'”
That’s Jorge Sanchez-Perez (University of Alberta) on Twitter, talking about why he doesn’t leave out or discount Hume’s racism when teaching his students about Hume.Professor Sanchez-Perez is a self-proclaimed “huge fan” of Hume’s ideas. In a series of tweets, he writes:
So one thing that I noticed when researching Hume’s ideas was that he was not afraid to call BULLSHIT when things did not look right. So much so, that he was willing to risk life and freedom for the sake of calling out the common knowledge of his time… If an intellectual is willing to challenge almost 2000 years of metaphysics and the dominant physics and scientific consensus of his time, such an intellectual is not a “person of their time.” Hume clearly saw things that made no sense and pushed the boundaries of philosophy and general knowledge during his lifetime. So to claim that he was constrained by the views of his time makes ABSOLUTELY no sense.
…if Hume endorsed racism in his 1753 “of National Characters”, then at least two readings are available. 1) He truly embraced racism because he found good reasons to support it. 2) He was too lazy to challenge the racist dominant views of his time. But given that Hume was a massive intellectual force of nature, I am inclined to reject 2. Does this mean I have to stop teaching him or his ideas? Hell no. There is much to learn from Hume. Especially, for me, his unwillingness to take BULLSHIT just because it is common philosophical or scientific knowledge at a time. But it does demand from those of us willing to teach his ideas, I think, to preface them with his racism. Not only to avoid gaslighting students, but also to show how some really smart people can hold some really unsupported views.
The Twitter thread is here.
Sanchez-Perez holds that Hume embraced racism because “he found good reasons to support it”, but wants to use Hume’s example to “show how some really smart people can hold some really unsupported views”. These are consistent if we think Hume’s good reasons for supporting racism were an unrepresentative subset of the “total” reasons bearing on the question, and if ‘unsupported’ in the second bit means “unsupported on the basis of the “total” reasons”. But if that’s how we’re to read the second bit, that claim is pretty trivial: since really smart people often only have access to an unrepresentative subset of the total reasons, really smart people often hold really unsupported views (in the sense that the total reasons don’t support them): Newton accepting Newtonian Physics, etc. Am I missing something? Sorry if I am, not trying to be uncharitable.Report
√Well, Hume didn’t risk life and freedom, he was clever enough to cover his tracks in that respect and kept out of jurisdictions where that was a real threat. Heidegger was an antisemite and joined the Nazi Party- a real Hitler fan. All the statements made re Hume as a philosopher also apply to him (his fans would claim). Teaching Hume’s philosophy (or Heidegger’s) is like teaching Newton’s physics. There are pragmatic reasons for doing so but both physics and philosophy have moved on to more advanced understandings. Report
Physics has not “moved on” from Newtonian physics. We now understand it in a broader context but it remains a hugely important aspect of our understanding of the physical world.Report
I’m not sure we have “moved on” from Heidegger either — although he was a despicable human being, many contemporary philosophers still fruitfully engage with his work.Report
An alternative view would be that even “really smart people” have worldviews or intellectual frameworks that influence their ideas and opinions, and that someone can be iconoclastic in some respects and much less so in others, very independent-minded in certain ways and less so in others.
In that sense everyone, arguably, is a person of his/her/their time. But that does not mean that one should not mention Hume’s racism, since the intellectual climate of a particular period (and the extent to which someone accepts it or doesn’t) is significant in itself.
It’s also important to make clear whether X’s unsupported and objectionable views on race or anything else “infected” the rest of his or her writing. For example, did Marx’s anti-Semitic statements in the second part of “On the Jewish Question” infect everything else he wrote? (Answer: no.)Report
I don’t dispute the conclusion that it’s a good idea to not ignore Hume’s racism, but isn’t another explanation of why Hume didn’t criticize racism just that he didn’t think to? Plenty of people are really creative in lots of theoretical areas and totally unquestioning when it comes to moral (and social, political, etc.) problems. Smart people have blind spots; there are many ways to be a product of one’s time. (I’m no Hume scholar though, so I’m happy to be corrected.)Report
He was criticized for his racism and altered the footnote but held on to the core white supremacist beliefs. Others around him did criticize racism, including some people he thought highly of. Hume was aware of this. We know due to the research of Silvia Sebastiani that the members of the Wise Club in Aberdeen discussed Hume’s racism extensively and concluded “Learn, Mr. Hume, to prize the blessings of Liberty and Education, for I will venture to assure you that had you been born and bred a slave, your Genius, whatever you may think of it, would never have been heard of”. We know, due to Felix Waldmann, that Hume was involved to some extent with the slave trade.
These discussions always return to ground zero of the same defenses. Not intended as a criticism of you, you note you are not a Hume scholar. Just an observation about how these discussions always seem to go.Report
In his essay On the Standard of Taste, Hume himself talks about how the morally repugnant sensibilities animating a culturally distant work might make it impossible to appreciate it. He claims this may not occur if the faults of the culturally distant work result from a scientifically obsolete worldview. The racism case is interesting because during Hume’s time what we would consider morally repugnant racist sentiments drew support from an obsolete scientific view of races that has since been discredited.
As far as what is to be gained by teaching Hume’s racism, it is worthwhile if it helps us to consider ways many of us accept the morally bad views and practices of our own time that future generations will rightly find repugnant. It is less worthwhile it all the students take away from their study of Hume is that he was a racist. Report
I thought the reason many don’t teach Hume’s racism is something like this: it’s usually not relevant to the content being read. For example, suppose I’m teaching Hume on miracles. It would be weird to preface it with “Oh, and by the way, this guy was a racist.” It’s nothing to shy away from if someone asks. But his racism just doesn’t seem relevant to many (most) topics we teach about him.Report
Maybe if I was teaching a course on the life of Hume. Otherwise, why? And what makes his view on race so important? I am sure he had views on women and maybe homosexuality, should that be included? What about immigration policy? Everyone has a constellation of beliefs peripheral to their main intellectual contributions. Has someone come up with objective criteria of which peripheral views are to be presented in addition to the main one?Report
I think it depends a lot on teaching style. One can teach in a way that’s austerely focused on ideas and their development, such that the author’s name is scarcely more than a placeholder. (Mostly I teach that way). But many people (often very effectively) provide little potted discussions of philosophers in their time, to humanize and give context. I can see the case (though I don’t think it’s conclusive) that if you’re teaching that way, there’s an obligation to mention the bad along with the good.Report
I have no point in small biographical asides while teaching. But does pointing out someone living 200+ years ago had racist views really about humanizing them? I suspect the same people who do this shy away from humanizing Martin Luther King by mentioning his homophobia and misogyny.Report
Doing this for King, at least in my experience, is also an easy way to get that nice appointment with the Dean or your campus DEI adminstrator. Discussions like this, on our current campus climate, are so fraught that it’s often best to avoid them for purely pragmatic CYA grounds. It does depend, though, on who’s life we’re talking about and what aspects of that person’s life.
I don’t have any trouble talking about Mill’s depression (his “Crisis”) and it often can even help students get a feel for things since he was, essentially, peer-aged for college students when this happened. I also sometimes make jokes about the imaginary sitcom set during the time when Hume and Smith lived together. The hijinx potential is certainly there!Report
It is actually important to understand the general view of a thinker or a philosopher on issues of life: for man can not be separated from his thoughts,and the totality of a man’s thought is wherein embedded his integrity,even though thoughts not translated into action is half of the integrity of the person: for the strength of a man’s uprightness is inherent in his ability to restrain negative thoughts from becoming action.Report
I honestly can’t believe people are having this discussion without even mentioning Justin EH Smith’s “Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference.” Smith makes a very compelling case that Hume’s empiricism and his racism are strongly intertwined with one another. To wildly oversimplify a subtle and detailed work, his brand of empiricism leads him to focus on the apparent observable differences in people. On the other hand dualists like Descartes and his followers or a rationalist anti-materialist like Leibniz focused on the soul or mind which they thought shared by all humans but not directly observable. This made them much more resistant to racism. If I’m not wrong, though on this point I could be misremembering Hume’s skepticism about the self also played into his racism for similar reasons. If Smith is right, and I think he is, then you really couldn’t teach any part of Hume honestly without acknowledging the racism.Report
Empiricists = Racists; Rationalists = Anti-Racists.Report
Do you mind if I use your comment the next time I cover the straw man fallacy in “Critical Thinking”? I know it’s little simplistic for a college level class, but it’s nice to have something all the kids can spot before you move on to more subtle and charitable stuff like say Tucker Carlson.Report
Only if I can use your comment the next time I’m teaching a class about people missing/getting mad at obvious jokes.Report
The truth is I’m going to anyway. I only wish you had enough confidence in both the quality of your humor and argument to actually put your name to what you post.Report
As you state it it’s an old argument. In its modern form see Harry Bracken’s influential “Essence, Accident, Race” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/23040470#metadata_info_tab_contents). These arguments seem to cycle.Report
Well I guess I am not convinced. I re-read ‘Of National Characters’ and it certainly contains an obnoxiously racist footnote, but the general terror of Hume’s argument is not conducive to racism. His thesis is that although certain dispositions and character traits are more common in some nations (at certain times) than in others, these average differences in characters, capacities and dispositions are to be put down to ‘moral’ – that is, sociological, historical and political – causes, rather than hereditary differences between the natures of human beings in the different nation-states. Simplifying somewhat, it is nurture (where nurture is the product of history) not nature that accounts for these differences in national characters. Thus it would be (and indeed was) easy for someone to deploy Hume’s overall thesis to defuse his racist argument. The reasons why (to Hume’s knowledge) ‘negroes’ hitherto had not shone as cultural producers (which Hume puts down to racial inferiority) could be similar to the reasons why the Danes were allegedly duller than the French. (It is hard to be a high-level cultural producer when you are labouring under the lash.) Thus Hume was a racist because he was a racist, not because his philosophy implies, suggests or facilitates racism. His racism was (with respect to his philosophy) an aberration.
Two consequences, I suggest:
1) Unless you are dealing explicitly with Hume’s social philosophy, his racism is largely irrelevant. You can teach his critique of induction or his No-Ought-From-is argument or even his overall meta-ethics without having to say anything about his racism. You won’t be selling your students short or concealing form them something that they really need to know. (A contrasting case here might be Heidegger. I am not very up in the relevant literature, but it seems from what I have read that it was not just an accident that Heidegger was a Nazi.)
2) But there is a reason *sometimes* for saying a little something about the darker sides of famous philosophers, Hume included. Some philosophers have seductive literary personalities. In engaging with their ideas you feel yourself to be engaging with a personality, often a personality that it is hard not to like and admire (Lakatos for me, Wittgenstein for others). But there is something wrong with admiring or liking those who are not truly admirable. So *that‘s* why it is sometimes worth making a fuss about a famous a philosopher’s dubious deeds or obnoxious opinions. When we celebrate what Lakatos made of of his massive intellectual gifts we do well to remember that because of him there was at least one idealistic young woman who never got to develop the gifts that she may have had because he pressured her into swallowing poison. When we swoon to the hypnotic charm of Wittgenstein’s writings we do well to remember that there was one poor kid who died at fourteen, who Wittgenstein hit so hard that he collapsed, and whose short life was probably made miserable by a terrifying teacher. We should not be making heroes or a heroines of people who don’t deserve it, something that it is surprisingly easy to do. This is not a reason, I think, for not assigning great but flawed philosophers, good but flawed philosophers, or even OK but flawed philosophers, but it is a reason (sometimes) for saying a little something about the flaws.Report
For the fact that Hume was able to buy into racism of his time or of himself shows the level of his mediocrity, and in essence,a lack of independent mind for philosophical thoughtfulness. Any philosopher or philosophical work that is not mature enough for universal accommodation is more or less a product of biases,and hence not qualified to be a philosopher or philosophical work (when critically examined).
Igweolisa Sunday Nebeolisa-Igwe ISN: Nebeolism-Igweism A human development philosopher,and propounder Reminiscencing-transcendency Theory/RTT (Nebeolism-Igweism)Report
It strikes me as very interesting indeed that, while Hume’s racist comment apparently ought to be mentioned and explored whenever he is taught, and while the misdeeds of more recent figures should also be brought to light (if those recent figures should be taught in spite of their misdeeds), the same principle does not apply to everyone.
Martin Luther King’s philandering and (apparently) anti-gay sentiments have already been mentioned here. I have also never heard any explorations of Marx’s intensely racist and especially anti-Semitic comments, though they are much more extensive than Hume’s. There are also a number of public intellectuals whose writings have formed the basis of a prevailing ideology at universities and many other public and private institutions in recent years. I can hardly imagine a general norm of calling them out for the most objectionable things those people have said and done, at least until there are new revolutionary leaders to follow and the old ones are sent to the wall by the latest regime.
The selective demand to expose all students to the worst writing of certain chosen figures but not others is easy to understand as a polemical move intended to garner support for the revolutionary overthrow of liberal institutions by means of an attack on the personal characters of the founders of liberal thought. If not that, then it is difficult to see why the targets are exactly the ones who have been chosen, and why the iconoclasm is so unevenly distributed.
If considerations of prudence or delicacy prevent us from exposing all philosophers at their worst, then perhaps we should make things a little fairer by addressing these matters only when they come up. If there should come a time when everyone can be a fair target, then we can decide more consistently whether it’s best to follow a policy of drawing attention to the worst faults of everyone across the board.Report
Well Justin, although banging on about a thinker’s darker deeds and opinions isn’t always appropriate, at other times it is. For instance if someone were giving a course or even a lecture on the political thought of either Lenin or Trotsky, I think they would be remiss if they did not mention texts such as this:
“11 June 1921 the following order was issued with the approval of the Politburo [of which Lenin and Trotsky were members] :
Antonov’s band [in Tambov] has been smashed by the decisive action of our troops, it has been scattered and is being captured piecemeal. In order finally to tear out all the SR-bandit roots … the All-Union Executive Committee orders as follows:
1. Citizens who refuse to give their names are to be shot on the spot without trial;
2. The penalty of hostage-taking should be announced and they are to be shot when arms are not surrendered.
3. In the event of concealed arms being found, shoot the eldest worker in the family on the spot and without trial.
4. Any family which harboured a bandit is subject to arrest and deportation from the province, their property to be confiscated and the eldest worker in the family to be shot without trial.
5. The eldest worker of any families hiding members of the family or the property of bandits is to be shot on the spot without trial.
6. If a bandit’s family flees, the property is to be distributed among peasants loyal to the Soviet regime and the abandoned houses burnt or demolished.
7. This order is to be carried out strictly and mercilessly. It is to be read at village meeting
[Source: Dmitri Volkogonov: Lenin, Life and Legacy.] “
Despite the fact that Alan Musgrave owed an enormous personal debt to his friend and mentor Imre Lakatos, Alan and I did not think it right to gloss over Lakastos’s Stalinist past when composing our entry on Lakatos for the Stanford. Check out the introduction and §§1.1-1.3. How relevant is this to Lakatos’s views as a philosopher of science and mathematics? I discuss this issue (since I was the author of this section) at §1.2.
Another example: I teach a critical-but-on-the-whole-admiring course on Russell which not only discusses his technical philosophy but also his opinions on morality, politics, war and peace. I do not gloss over his endorsement in ‘The Ethics of War’ of what he calls ‘wars of colonisation’ against ‘uncivilised’ indigenous peoples, though a more graphic and up-to-date term nowadays would be ‘wars of ethnic cleansing’. (Quoting Russell: ‘By a “war of colonisation” I mean war whose purpose is to drive out the whole population of some territory and replace it with an invading population of a different race’. Such wars are justified ‘ if ‘there is a great an undeniable difference between the civilisation of the colonisers and the dispossessed race’.) The class is naturally shocked, especially as Russell explicitly endorses wars in New Zealand against the Maori, since typically about 11% of my classes will be of partially Maori descent. My only defence is that he later changed his tune.
My general view is the what is sauce for the Leninist goose (and I typically serve out large dollop of anti-Leninist sauce) is also sauce for the Liberal gander. Report
The facts don’t really fit your thesis. Yes Marx weirdly seems to get a pass, but so do some liberal thinkers. For instance, if the intent is to discredit liberal thought, then why does Mill always seem to get a pass from philosophers even though he was a bureaucrat with the East India company for most of his working life?To put it bluntly he earned his living from a project of exploitation and oppression, and yet I don’t see philosophers seriously discussing this for the most part. The question here is are the disagreeable facts of a philosopher’s biography relevant to his thought? In some cases they clearly aren’t and if they aren’t then mentioning them is a distraction at best. I don’t mention Wittgenstein’s misogyny when I teach my students truth tables and I don’t think anyone should. It’s a distraction from learning the material. There’s nothing to learn from it. The same goes for the fact that Ayn Rand drew Social Security benefits. She’s just a hypocrite, but that doesn’t tell us much about her thought. When it comes to King, it seems to me the same holds even if what you say is correct. Perhaps he’s no saint– I’m enough of a Calvinist to think pretty much no one actually is– but why is that relevant to King as either an intellectual or political figure? Tell me what we can learn from it? On the other hand, for reasons I sketched earlier there’s probably something to be learned about Hume’s philosophy itself from thinking and talking about his racism. There’s certainly a lot to be learned by asking how and why Mill could support the colonial project. Whatever he was he wasn’t a hypocrite, he thought that his moral commitments actually provided support for his colonialism. I do think you’re right that philosophers need to reckon more with Marx’s history on this subject since the commitment that some cultures are more advanced than others is absolutely essential to Marx’s teleological conception of history and the secular eschatology it’s supposed to support. I tend to think that an honest reckoning with Marx would show that on this point there’s a lot more in common between Marx and certain liberal thinkers like Mill and Hume than either party might like to believe. (For anyone, interested in such an honest reckoning I can’t recommend Priya Satia’s “Time’s Monster” highly enough.)
Also, the very idea of some sort of “liberal” tradition that includes thinkers as diverse as Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Nozick is pretty much bunk. There’s a huge gap between the “liberalism” of Mill or even Rawls, where some sort of utopian project itself seems to step in the vacuum left by religion, and “liberalism” motivated by a healthy distrust and fear of authority and coercion like that of say Shklar or Elizabeth Anderson. Talk of “liberalism” or some preferred flavor of liberalism like “classical liberalism” pretty much always comes down to a really facile white hat/black hat take on the history of philosophy, of the sort Isaiah Berlin peddled, where the liberals or liberals of the preferred sort are the white hats.Report
Thanks for this, Sam. I think many points in your criticism of what I said are good, but not all of them. For instance, I haven’t observed that Mill gets a free pass: I’ve heard him called ‘problematic’ many times, especially when I’ve told people that I’m a sort of Millian liberal.
But the overall point you make here, as I understand it, is one I agree with. I think that, in nearly all cases, discussions of a philosopher’s personal bad or supposedly bad actions or beliefs are an invitation to lapse into the ad hominem fallacy or at least some sort of red herring. I think this is especially to be feared when this is done in the presence of students who don’t yet know better, by professors who should certainly know better by this point.
Perhaps it’s because certain approaches to philosophy (erroneously) use the ad hominem fallacy as a tool of their craft that we see it used less against the great heroes of those approaches.
I think there’s a bit more to it, though: for instance, I think it’s hard to deny that many radical groups see and present themselves as tearing off the mask of enlightenment thought and exposing it for the sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. monstrosity that it is, presumably so as to sow suspicion and disgust about non-radical thought.
I do think that Charles makes an interesting point — I don’t think it’s always irrelevant to mention unfortunate and unflattering details about a philosopher. Here are some rough initial thoughts in response, for what they’re worth:
1. If a philosopher presents a general program for radically reshaping the world, and you are discussing that work at length with your students, and the philosophers in question had an opportunity to attempt their utopian vision and acted very badly in doing so, then it seems relevant to raise this issue with your students. It might be that one cannot realize that utopian goal without going disastrously wrong, or that furthering that utopian goal puts too much power in the hands of the leaders to be viable, etc. It might also be that the misuse of power was only accidentally connected with the leaders of the revolutionary movement, but it might be worth thinking about.
2. If you select a reading for the course on its own merits or for its own historical significance but it happens to have a passage that is shocking by our standards today (like a passage from Aristotle on the supposed inferiority of women), stopping to address such a sexist remark (for instance) seems reasonable to me. The reason for discussing it in that case seems similar to the reason for stopping to discuss a sexist remark a student might make in the classroom: it might be that passing over it in silence might wrongly suggest that one endorses it.
3. A Stanford Encyclopedia article on a philosopher often gives quite a lengthy description of his or her life. I don’t see much reason for using such an article as an occasion for trying to dish up whatever dirt one can — nobody is perfect, after all — but at times a philosopher’s actions or views are so extreme that they merit special attention. Heidegger’s thorough and persistent embrace (as I understand it) of Nazi ideology seems to be an example of this. And it is surely relevant to understand what relevant ideas *influenced* Lakatos or Descartes, say, if one wants to fully understand their thought and what led to it.
I just don’t see how any of that entails that we should mention Hume’s racist beliefs (which he only seems to have mentioned very briefly, and in one of his less-read works) to students if we are discussing, say, his approach to testimony about miracles or the puzzle of induction.
Similarly, while it’s distressing to hear that Russell once endorsed war against the Maori to whatever extent he did, I’m not sure I see the point of bringing this up in a general discussion of his philosophy. If a student in class, whether Maori or not, were to bring up this little-known detail about Russell’s life, then I think it should be addressed rather than swept under the carpet. But why should the professor bring it up at all? Is the idea that some of those Maori students might become excited about Russell, or philosophy more generally, by hearing one’s lectures on Russell’s philosophy, and then end up reading him at such length that they find the objectionable thing Russell said, at which point they will feel betrayed and one must hang one’s head in shame for not having given the students a complete catalogue of Russell’s personal faults? I just don’t see (yet) why that is necessary.Report
Commendable. The courtesy, charity, and good will on display in your response have halted my return. For now, I shall remain in Hades.Report
Justin there is a bit of context here that you appear to miss. Why should I bring up Russell’s endorsement of ‘wars of colonisation’ and specifically the wars against the Maori in class? Well, the title of the course is ‘Bertrand Russell: Ethics, Logic, Pacifism and Truth’ and it deals at length both with his technical philosophy and with his writings on politics in general and pacifism and in particular. The endorsement of ‘wars of colonisation’ occurs in his first major semi-academic article on issues of war and peace, namely ‘The Ethics of War’, published in the International Journal of Ethics, in 1915. (Russell was never an absolute pacifist always admitting that some wars were justified, eg the American War of Independence. But in 1915, at any rate, ‘wars colonisation’ were among the wars he was willing to endorse.) Since Russell wrote an awful lot about these issues, I could, of course, direct the class’s attention to other papers, effectively concealing ‘The Ethics of War’ from my students. (Given that it is a rather reading-heavy course, they are not likely to read anything I do not recommend.) So there is an element of choice here. But given that part of the course is explicitly devoted to Russell’s writings as a (qualified) pacifist it would be remiss of me to gloss over the seamier side of his first manifesto for a qualified form of pacifism. (I should stress by the way that it is not just the Maori students who are shocked by Russell’s opinions.)
If I were simply lecturing on such topics as the Theory of Types or physical objects as logical constructions of out sense-data, I might not mention the matter, but then again, perhaps I might. David Wallace puts the point well. ‘One can teach in a way that’s austerely focused on ideas and their development, such that the author’s name is scarcely more than a placeholder. (Mostly I teach that way). But many people (often very effectively) provide little potted discussions of philosophers in their time, to humanize and give context’. I fall into the latter category. I certainly teach philosophy as the dance of ideas or the dance of arguments but I also emphasise that philosophical ideas and arguments are produced by people and that it sometimes helps to understand the ideas and arguments of you know a little something about the people who invented them. Also, although I see myself primarily as a teacher of philosophy, I also see myself as a general educator with the subsidiary object of expanding my students’ general knowledge particularly (though not exclusively) with respect to history (of which they are often lamentably ignorant) .
Placed at the door of learning, youth to guide
I keep that door conveniently wide
[In this I follow Russell himself. A lot of what I know about both history and general culture, I learned originally from following up on Russell’s asides.] So even if I were concentrating on Russell’s contributions to set theory (say), I would almost certainly give the students a potted biography. In which case I *might* say something about his views on ‘wars of colonisation’ if the students showed signs of an uncritical admiration. (This relates to the point made above: I think it is a bad thing – though, usually no biggie – if people admire people more than they deserve and Russell is in many way such an attractive and interesting figure, that students might be inclined to rate him too high.)
And there is a another thing too. My understanding of history is deeply tainted with tragedy. Events which can seem to be progressive from one point of view can often carry with them terrible costs. As a liberal, I celebrate the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and William III’s & Marlborough’s victories over James II and Louis XIV in the ensuing wars. They saved Britain from absolutism, and set the scene for a constitutional monarchy and ultimately, very much later, for democracy. They helped to create and sustain a polity which provided the model for the US constitution (which is an idealised version of the British constitution as radical Whigs understood it . But these victories (particularly the Battle of the Boyne) riveted the chains of servitude about the necks of the Irish Catholics for more than two hundred years, contributing to such catastrophes as the potato famine and the consequent depopulation. As somebody of both English Protestant and Irish Catholic descent (like many of my students) I am consequently ambivalent. And though the naval victories in those wars did not quite lead to the degree of dominance that followed Trafalgar, in so far as Britain ruled (some of ) the waves in the aftermath of the Treaty of Utrecht, it ruled those waves as a slave-trading nation. A big issue in the Treaty of Utrecht negotiations was securing the Asiento.
In contributing to my students’ understanding of history (which is something I do in at least four out of my five extant courses) I don’t want them to see it as contest between untainted heroes and deep dyed villains. To quote Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil runs though every human heart, and if students are unaware of this (or of the consequential tragic ironies of history) I see it as part of my task as an educator to enlighten them. Report
Ah, you’re right, of course, Charles: I hadn’t understood that you were talking about a course specifically on Russell with the topic of his pacifism getting a starring role.
In that case, I agree that it’s a good idea to explore his changing position on war and pacifism with the students.
Again, I’m not at all in favor of sweeping things under the carpet: I just don’t see why people should feel obligated to bring them up when they don’t seem relevant to what is being discussed. That puzzlement doesn’t seem to apply to your course, though (which sounds very interesting, by the way!)
More generally, I’m very much in favor of presenting people with a complex and nuanced picture of a subject (including history) rather than one in which it’s all white hats vs. black hats. Yes, some of the great heroes behaved in un-heroic ways at times, and some of the great villains acted in ways that were understandable when one looks more closely at them; and historical events that paved the way for great happiness and freedom sometimes also involved the bringing of suffering. History is complicated, and the first people to point out that even a great thinker like Hume sometimes had bigoted, cringe-worthy and unphilosophical things to say did a great service by pointing that out and saving us from bland hero-worship.
But as the voices of the dissenters become dominant and then crowd out what were once the mainstream voices, the interesting minority view becomes the dull new orthodoxy, and the only things many students learn about history conform to the reversed cliches, and their picture of the world comes to have less nuance on these points than a Netflix production, and so on. And then what was once bold and nonconformist to say becomes just the opposite.
It doesn’t at all sound as though that’s going on in your course! Thanks for the explanation.Report
I don’t have an overall settled view on this matter, but I find it odd to see Hume’s discussion of miracles listed as a clear case in which his views of race would be irrelevant, given this step in his argument:
“Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions.”
Strictly speaking, cultural chauvinism isn’t identical to racism, but of course there is much overlap between racist and cultural/developmental accounts of the superior character of modern Europeans over members of other cultures past and present. Knowing about Hume’s racism should, at the least, give us pause about the plausibility of his assessment of the relative reliability of testimony from ‘barbarous nations’ and ‘barbarous ancestors’. In doing so, it may also give us occasion to interrogate our own preference for the testimony of those from our own time and culture – to what extent are such preferences justified by genuinely superior epistemic standing, and to what extent are they simply expressions of our own poorly founded prejudices?
I admit that I’m not generally inclined to teach Hume’s racism when I’m covering the problem of induction (though I’d be surprised if there weren’t some interesting interactions to be explored between Hume’s account of the nature of empirical knowledge and his acceptance of particular false social scientific views). But in the case of his discussion of miracles his racial views are clearly relevant, if not strictly essential, to evaluating the argument as written.Report
Interesting. When reading that passage in the first Inquiry, I always assumed that he was making a dig at the cultures in which Christianity emerged and took hold. It’s not just the peoples of ancient Jerusalem who provided abundant testimony about miracles: miracle stories have always been told all around western Europe, most famously perhaps during the Crusade mania. Since these would presumably have been the accounts of miracles Hume would have been most familiar with, I always assumed that the people whose cultures he’s calling barbarous there are mostly white people, perhaps (but not entirely) from the past.
The fact that he talks here of civilized nations having barbarous ancestors seems to make it especially implausible that he’s using culture here as another way of referring to race. Where culture and race coincide, the race of the culture is the same as the race of its ancestors.
I guess the question then is whether it’s legitimate to take testimony less seriously when it comes from a culture with relatively little esteem for independent, critical reasoning and a tendency to transmit amazing stories from the past with “inviolable sanction and authority.” It seems to me that it must be. We know very well from the literature on cognitive biases how unreliable such stories can be. Are we really compelled to ignore that just because some cultures do not have a high regard for independent thinking and objective, self-critical reasoning?Report
He’s certainly referring, in part, to early Christians and the associated pre-Christian cultures, but it would be implausible to think that he does not also mean to include contemporary non-European cultures. The whole idea that other cultures are ‘primitive’ is precisely the idea that they, in their contemporary form, represent an earlier stage of human development shared by precursors to our own ‘civilized’ culture, which is thought to be more advanced on the hierarchy of human development. This view, though objectionable in other ways, is not inherently racist. But it is often combined with explicitly racist views, either that somehow the dominant race has literally ‘evolved’ from this more primitive state of society, or else that race-based characteristics explain why our civilization and not others have advanced in these ways.
Of course some ways of knowing are more reliable than others, and some social practices are more conducive than others to producing reliable testimony, and we should evaluate those. But it’s silly to think we can reliably sum up cultural practices of knowing under crude categories of ‘civilized’ vs ‘barbarian,’ or even ‘critical thinking: pro or con’.
For what it’s worth, I am largely in agreement with Hume’s conclusion. I think there are plenty of reasons for discounting the testimonial evidence for miracles that don’t depend on such a crude and misleading characterization of cultures past and present.Report
Once we accept — as you say you also accept — that “some ways of knowing are clearly more reliable than others and that some social practices are more conducive than others to producing reliable testimony,” it becomes difficult to deny that, in important respects, a certain culture can be better than another. A culture, for instance, in which people can be tried and executed for witchcraft is not as good (in that respect at least) as one in which it is understood that crop failure is not due to malefactors making a pact with Satan. A culture whose legal practice insists on clear evidence and reasoning in its legal system is better in that respect (and presumably many others) than one whose legal trials depend on the verdict of a priest who has consulted the auguries or the result of a fatal duel in which a divine being is expected to award victory to the innocent. And so on.
As you say, there is nothing at all racist in admitting that.
Also, human societies whose legal and scientific practices leave significant space for objective reasoning all got to be that way over the last few thousand or, in many more cases (including the cultures of western Europe) just the last few hundred years. Absolutely no culture has ever appeared on the scene with a good grasp of reasoning and a strong concern for objective evidence, etc. To admit that every culture that has ever attained greatness achieved it through slow progress from crude and humble beginnings, which is what Hume seems to imply here, is to leave little room for a race-based account of cultural greatness. The natural state of every race on earth is barbarism, as we can see if we wind back the clock a few centuries and millennia and compare ourselves to our ancestors.
I don’t see how that could be plausibly explained by the view “that somehow the dominant race has literally ‘evolved’ from this more primitive state of society,” We have the same racial characteristics of our ancestors from a few centuries ago. If Hume had said the *opposite* — if he had said that no advanced civilization had ever advanced from a state of barbarism — then I would see your point. But this seems like the opposite of a platform for a racist account.
I also agree that, if Hume had presented the other interpretation you mention here — “that race-based characteristics explain why our civilization and not others have advanced in these ways” — things would be quite different. But that is not what he says in the chapter on miracles, or anywhere else in the first Inquiry. So to present that reading to students is to present them with something that is not racist in itself, but which could be interpreted along racist lines if considered in connection with a sentence or two Hume wrote in an entirely different and less read work. But then I’m not sure why we have to raise that issue at all. What we normally present to students gestures toward an account of societies at different stages of progress toward reasonable epistemic practices, which if anything implies that some unstated non-racial factors are the deciding factor. Why would it be less offensive to students to wheel in the racist comment Hume made in a completely different work? And why would one have to consider Hume’s racist comment before coming to a conclusion about whether Hume’s case against easily trusting testimony about miracles is a good one, considering that we agree that there are obviously superior and inferior epistemic cultural practices, which is all Hume needs to make his point?Report
If you believe that dividing the world between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarous’ involves nothing more than the commitment that some cultural practices are more conducive to knowledge transmission than others, then I think we are, once again, past the point of productive exchange within this forum. This is sad, because I agree with you on the need to preserve the good parts of the enlightenment tradition, even as we shed its racist, sexist, and colonial elements. But you hurt, rather than help that cause when you insist on reinterpreting crude prejudice based in an outdated view of human social development as though it represents a careful and nuanced exercise in comparative epistemology between cultures.Report
I teach on a majority minority community college campus. In my classes, I think bringing up the racism of many of the central canonical philosophical figures makes a lot of sense.
Racism is a topic on the minds of many students, and I think acknowledging philosophy’s historical (and in my mind, current) struggles with racism has several positive effects. I often use the discussion to encourage students of color to enter the field and take up research projects that will expand the philosophical tradition. I also think students appreciate the honest self-reflection many philosophers have brought to their own discipline.
In my experience, bringing up these problems in classes helps students connect and engage with the philosophers more.Report